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Governor signs law based on Virginia girl’s abuse case, goal is to save other children

Heaven's loved ones hope the legislation will improve the way Child Protective Services caseworkers investigate abuse allegations.

NORFOLK, Va. — Heaven Watkins was 11-years-old when she was beaten to death in Norfolk, Virginia. Her case led to questions about Child Protective Services or CPS and how caseworkers are able to get background information on alleged abuse victims.

This month, Gov. Ralph Northam signed "Heaven’s Law," which is based on Heaven’s case. The legislation brings changes to how CPS caseworkers will investigate future child abuse allegations in Virginia. 

Heaven’s story begins in Minnesota. There, social services workers removed the little girl from her mother’s home, amid abuse allegations. During that time, Heaven lived with her aunt, Sheronda Orridge. 

When Heaven’s mother, Latoya Smith, complied with a Minnesota court’s orders, she was allowed to regain custody of Heaven. Shortly after that, Smith moved her family, including Heaven, to Virginia. 

According to prosecutors, within months, Virginia caseworkers investigated another abuse allegation. In February 2018, Heaven's hand was burned so badly, she needed skin grafts. She was in the hospital for days. Officials haven't said if Virginia caseworkers knew about the Minnesota history when they decided not to remove Heaven from her mother’s care after that incident.

Three months later, Heaven was beaten to death. Her mother pled guilty in the case and is awaiting sentencing. Her mother’s boyfriend, Demont Harris, is scheduled to go to trial in May.

At the time of Heaven’s death, there was no mandate to check for prior abuse investigations in other states. Heaven's Law changes that -- it will require caseworkers to look back at least five years for any records of abuse or neglect investigations in another state.

After the bill passed both the Virginia House and Senate unanimously, Orridge told WUSA9 investigative reporter Laura Geller, the focus changed from how the little girl died to the good she can now do in death. 

"Looking at her circumstances and knowing that she deserved better and other kids deserved better and they will get better because of this," she reacted in early March. 

Orridge hopes this will be her niece's legacy.

"A lot of times, you do feel alone and to know somebody was listening and looking at her story, not just listening to me, but listening to Heaven, that's the way I look at it," she added.

The bill goes into effect on July 1.

As for the criminal case against mom, Latoya Smith, there is no agreement as to how much time she will serve. On the high end, she faces a maximum of fifty years in prison, but, on the low end, she could serve just seven years. That's a only few years less than her young daughter got to live.

Smith's sentencing hearing is scheduled for April in Norfolk.

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